Paradise and Elsewhere

No one can hear us and the room is plain, scarcely lit, warmed to the temperature of blood. I listen. I hear the way your voice rises or tightens or …

Book jacket courtesy of Biblioasis

No one can hear us and the room is plain, scarcely lit, warmed to the temperature of blood. I listen. I hear the way your voice rises or tightens or softens when you are not telling the truth. Other signs tell me whether or not you are aware of your own self-deception. I watch. I see the small tensions of the face, a quiver of the eyelids, one hand slipping up to cover the mouth, your eyes suddenly sliding to the side, as if reading posters from a moving train. I read your clothes. Why do you never dress warmly enough? Why do you always choose such clear colours, such stiff fabrics, so much black? Why is everything too loose or too tight and what is the story of that small golden brooch pinned on the left side, right above the heart?

I see the body beneath its coverings, how the vertebrae in the middle of your spine bear too heavily down on each other. I notice worn hands or smooth ones, bitten nails, the sudden angle of your foot, weak arms, asymmetrical musculature. I know whether there is a void or a fire between your legs, whether you are bleeding, that your throat hurts, your stomach churns. I can tell from the way you sit which parts of your body you will not look at; that you will be disgusted by hair growing through skin or in love with your own slenderness or with the raised scar on your arm. But none of this, not the room itself, neither the listening nor the watching are the reason for the fee.

Beyond the body is landscape: ranges of mountains you have climbed, up above the snow into a zone of purple-white air or strange moonscapes of rock, or thick cedar-smelling forest where no light reaches the softly rotting floor; Mediterranean islands; a desert; pink hills with old cities perched on their sides; moors sprung with heather; flat fields beneath a sky of towering cloud; a beach with white sand and spangled turquoise sea.

I understand that we all speak poetry. You may talk about a room that seems too small or too large, too dark, too cramped, too bright, too fussy, too red. Or it might be that you long for a kitchen painted white with just a wooden table and a chair. You may describe a fortified castle with arrow slits for windows, very forbidding, the stone dark with constantly falling rain. Or else a garden full of fruit hanging on the trees just beyond reach. You may hate cities or long for them, the same with thunderstorms. You may tell me of your violent dislikes towards people you meet or how you have fallen in love with a stranger because of the sound of his or her voice. You may describe books you have read and wept over. Perhaps you will talk of food, how you must have only very soft food or salty things or rare-cooked meat, how you wait for everything to go cold, how you always check the prongs of your fork and the sight of an egg yolk makes you sick. You may be unable to sleep without the light, or on your side, or alone; you may feel especially lonely at dusk.

You say you might have been, might yet be, different. A barrister, a mother, an astronaut, a woman or a man, a figure skater, a farmer, gymnast, soldier, artist, doctor, priest. You know you could be calmer, stronger, happier. Perhaps you would like to be a child again, or to have one. And of course there are your dreams, waking and sleeping ones of running, flying, surfing, falling downstairs, driving, drowning; dreams full of beasts or shoals of talking fish or just a solitary black dog. Dreams in which youths roam the city with their knives drawn, sadistic dreams, or even murdering dreams. Dreams of reading a wonderful story you never can remember, of fire, heroism, paralysis, riding on a camel…Your dreams of surrender in a wooded glade with a horned god, of violation, or of making love to a mermaid or your mother or your lover’s best friend, or a stranger in public, of entering naked a room in which everyone else is clothed, of an extravagant tangle of flesh that is all for you, a regiment of phalluses, the perfect breasts, a different coloured skin, of being both sexes at the same time. Or there may be precise dreams of being touched in a certain place and way, of the texture and scent of another person’s body, so real you wake up and reach for it, then weep at it not being there. Sometimes you will tell me of your dreamlessness. Either way I will understand the poetry you speak and I will know that I too am part of it: you will hate me and long for me, you will imagine my house, my dreams, that I love you or despise you, that I have too much power or that I am not using it well enough. I will understand. But it is not this understanding you pay for, nor my acknowledgement that each telling of a memory is a new narrative. I will not expect consistency. Sometimes I will tell you what I know and sometimes I will keep silent. My training has been long, and continues still. You will have the full benefit of all my experience. But again, this is not what you pay for, nor is it the thrills and terrors inherent in the risks that you will take. All these things are gifts.

I have always been here. In different times and places I have worked for nothing, a bowl of soup, respect, necessity, my own salvation. I said that we all speak in poems and this is mine for the here and now: I offer you the chance to beggar yourself in the name of something that can be neither weighed nor represented. Take it, please.

This appeared in the December 2014 issue.

Kathy Page
Kathy Page is the author of seven novels, including Frankie Styne and the Silver Man. She was longlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Paradise and Elsewhere.